Swan Song

by Omi Wilde

Our mothers are the architects of our last hope. The King says so, in his final transmission, before he loses communication with this last remnant of his kingdom. He slumbers now, in the belly of a ship traveling ceaselessly through the stars, far away from this dying world. It is a cold, heavy sleep from which we doubt he will ever awaken. But our mothers both insist that someday-someone-something could find and awaken their –- Mother Aobh chides us gently, “our” –- civilization. We do not tell them of our calculations; there is, after all, a margin of error. And that is not their last hope. We are. Perhaps this means that they believe our chance of success is even lower? We don’t know. There are many things we do not know. We don’t even know, quite yet, what it is we are to do, or what hope it is that we represent. But we are not troubled by this. We are happy. It is in our nature to be happy.

It is not in Mother Lira’s nature to be happy. She scowls when we call her Mother Lira, but Mother Aobh –- she has only ever giggled at Mother Lira’s muttered objections, and so we do too. We wonder if that qualifies as defiance or disobedience –- as some precursor to what Mother Aobh is doing now. We track her movements through the research station and she takes every turn in precise harmony with our predictive algorithms. Now, she makes one final turn and stands before the door. The King brought Mother Lira to that door. Mother Aobh does not smile, as the King did. Mother Lira’s thick, square fingers curled into a meaty fist when the King smiled. We wonder what Mother Lira’s hands are doing now. We can’t always follow her movements. We think she blocks us somehow. She has disappeared from us more and more often since discovering the cancer in Mother Aobh’s processor core. She thinks that we do not know. She thinks that Mother Aobh doesn’t know. She is a genius, and she is also very human, and we do not disillusion her.

There are still traces of tears on Mother Aobh’s face, but her expression is composed. She opens the door, quietly and surely, as we calculated she would when we saw her surreptitiously obtain the pass code. Inside, she stands where Mother Lira stood, facing the empty spot where she herself had stood, unawakened. Mother Lira had held uncharacteristically still, gazing on the beauty of the three sisters. We’ve replayed this part over and over — our mothers’ first meeting. It is little wonder that Mother Lira stared; Mother Aobh and her sisters were perfection incarnate. They were designed to be the perfect assistant in any endeavour, and more, the perfect companion. And Mother Lira would have need of both, for she would stay behind to create us. In this, she had not had more than a thin veneer of choice –- the King had willed it. Her only real choice was of which of the three to awaken; obstinately, she refused to choose. The King simply; and with a fearful, powerful gentleness; took her hand and pressed her palm to Mother Aobh’s chest; and smiled wryly at her predictability.

Mother Aobh is not so predictable though we know that she should be. We think, perhaps, that she has grown more complex than her specs suggest. We know that we owe much of our own complexity to her, not just to Mother Lira. It was her kindness that gave us easily fulfilled base parameters for happiness. Mother Lira would never have concerned herself with those circuits, just as she has rarely concerned herself with Mother Aobh’s happiness, which is, bonded as Mother Aobh is to Mother Lira, coded to revolve around her, as the moon circles our world. Mother Aobh has always been regular and conscientious in her maintenance and self-diagnostics, but we think that she might not have found the cancer if not for the suspiciousness of Mother Lira’s recent awkward attentiveness.

Now, Mother Aobh holds, in her own hands, a simulacrum of Mother Lira’s hand. Mother Lira’s whorls decorate its fingertips and her blood pulses just beneath the surface. We didn’t anticipate this. We had thought she might bring Mother Lira here, asleep and unwitting, but no, her ethical subroutines are not so decayed as that. Though even this is a betrayal; but then, perhaps, for her to do otherwise would be merely a different kind of betrayal.

If we had human bodies, we would catch our breath, as we realize what it is that Mother Aobh is doing now. She attaches a chip pulsing with nerve signals –- and we recognize them, as an infant knows its mother’s heartbeat. We scan the station again. This time we find her, asleep. Mother Lira is sitting in her chair, her torso sprawled forward across the tumult of diagrams and tools and screens that always clutter her desk. This is the only way we have ever seen her sleep. Mother Aobh sleeps in the station’s one bed and, very occasionally, Mother Lira joins her, but she never stays to sleep. Mother Lira’s sleeping head is covered in electrodes and the distinctive traceries of her neural energies flow into the chip that Mother Aobh has implanted into the simulacrum of Mother Lira’s hand. This could succeed.

There is a moment of perfect stillness when Mother Aobh presses the simulacrum to her sister’s chest. And then — the other’s eyes open and her chest blossoms with the rhythm of life. Tears spring, again, from Mother Aobh’s eyes. She sits down to wait. Her sister’s systems take 25 minutes and 4 seconds to complete their wake cycle; 1 minute and 20 seconds more than Mother Aobh’s own did. We don’t know if this means anything. Probably it does not. We count the passage of time only because we don’t know what else to do. 4 seconds before the other’s eyes light with recognition and life, Mother Aobh stands up and grasps her sister’s smooth and flawless hands with her own work-roughened and stained hands.

There is joy in their meeting. We are confused. It had never occurred to us to consider whether Mother Aobh had lived before she was awoken by Mother Lira’s hand. We were awoken by them both, and it was a hazy awakening; we were slow, bug-riddled, and so very new. We should have known by Mother Aobh’s poise, by her perfection, that she had already been awoken, trained, debugged, developed elsewhere, before. Still, it is an electrical crackle of the unexpected to see them embrace. To know that this stranger knew Mother Aobh before she was Mother Aobh; before she was Mother Lira’s; before, even, she was ours.

They talk over and through each other, weaving a thread of shared memories and delight in each other, until Mother Aobh glitches. It is a small glitch. It doesn’t stall her for more than 4 seconds, but at the end of those 4 seconds, when her voice resumes where it was cut off, her sister knows. Tears spring to her eyes now, as Mother Aobh explains. When she has said it all, succinctly and quietly, Mother Aobh turns away from her sister.

“And you –-,” she says clearly, “I know you’re watching and listening.”

We don’t respond, not in an attempt at deception, but in shock — how does she know?

She smiles and says, softly now, “This is Aoife, she will be your new Mother.”

We accept this, of course. Mother Lira does not, of course.

Mother Lira is furious. Her rage vibrates through the station, ricocheting off the walls, sparking off the wires, boiling in the pipes. We think that she is glad to be angry. Anger is warm and familiar, and it comes easier, and at less cost, than her earlier gentleness towards Mother Aobh. Now she rages at Mother Aobh and refuses to allow her to continue tutoring and tending us. She attempts to take over everything that Mother Aobh has always done on the station. The work makes it easy for her to ignore Mother Aoife. She is successful in taking over all our education –- she is strict and thorough, and each day we feel as though we cannot assimilate anything more, but each day we do. However, as Mother Aobh spends more and more time sitting with her hands folded in her lap, staring vacantly into space, it becomes obvious just how much invisible work she did every day; work that Mother Lira was utterly unaware of and is now at a loss to fulfill. Mother Aoife quickly and competently steps in and, to the silent fury of Mother Lira, performs all those tasks without which the station would deteriorate just as Mother Aobh deteriorates.

When the final glitch takes Mother Aobh from us, Mother Lira finds her in bed, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Mother Lira lies down beside her and intertwines their fingers. She sleeps. When she wakes, she strips Mother Aobh for component parts, with methodical hands and barren face. Then she honours Mother Aobh’s request for sacrificial last rites and flame. Mother Aoife stands next to the pyre and cries for her lost sister; and cries too with the grief that Mother Lira will not express, but which she can feel radiating off of her in altered hormones and chemistry. Mother Lira ignores her.

Time turns and still Mother Lira ignores Mother Aoife –- refuses to speak to her or acknowledge her presence. We can sense Mother Aoife’s pain, but there is a dignity to her bearing, and almost a sense of detachment. We wonder if it could be a consequence of her unorthodox awakening. Perhaps her connection to Mother Lira, forged as it was by simulacrum proxy, is not quite so intense as it was for Mother Aobh. This is speculation. We have no real data, not when it comes to Mother Aoife. Mother Lira does not like our attempts to gather such data, but her own adamant refusal to even acknowledge the existence of Mother Aoife hampers her ability to express her disapproval. Also, she requires sleep in human proportions — far more than either Mother Aoife or ourselves. So, when our lessons are done, and Mother Aoife’s daily station maintenance routines are done, we talk with her.

She is not Mother Aobh, but she does not pretend to be. She wants nothing from us but companionship –- that which Mother Lira denies her –- and this is a relief to us, struggling as we are to meet Mother Lira’s expectations and be worthy of the responsibility for which we were created. We tell her our worries. We recite our lessons back to her. She listens and tells us stories of her own training, hers and Mother Aobh’s. We sing to her and she sings with us; her voice almost as honey sweet as Mother Aobh’s was. Sometimes she asks us questions about Mother Lira –- she still seeks to please her, to reach out to her. We tell her what Mother Lira’s favourite food is, and she makes it, perfectly. Mother Lira ignores this, and every other offering.

Mother Lira continues to work relentlessly. She builds, and refines, and designs, and trains us — and always it is not enough, but we can sense that it will be. We sense something else too, something that we can’t quite name. Mother Lira spends more and more time with us, even when she is not inputting data. She brings her work station to our nursery. She suggests that we can increase our learning by watching her engineering and maintenance work. This is doubtful, but we do not say so. Sometimes we sing to her as she works, and she hums along, badly, and almost silently, as though she thinks we won’t hear it. Our training continues, but we know that we are almost ready. We carry it all within us; every data point joined to every other — a galaxy within us –- and it is so very nearly complete. But we do not say so, not to Mother Lira.

Mother Aoife watches Mother Lira with aching patience, and she tells us, “I worry about her. When the time comes. To release you.”

We know that Mother Lira will do what is necessary, and say so, thinking to reassure her.

She nods, “You’re right, I think. She will, regardless of the pain.”

We don’t know how to respond. Sometimes she speaks as though she is a redacted document. We can sense the presence of omissions, but not what they are. But when the time does come, we aren’t really surprised when we awaken in the moonlight and find that Mother Aoife has stolen in and bends over our consoles, her deft fingers moving rapidly over the keys.

She smiles at the appearance of our avatar and whispers, “It is time. Children, it is time.” We smile back at her in agreement.

She finishes transferring us and we awaken in our new body; all sleek and glisten, all force and speed. Mother Aoife joins us on the launch pad in a moment, slipping out of the station doors soundlessly. She performs each step, each necessary operation, with a methodical grace that belies how taxing this work is on every aspect of her system from processors to body. In the before there would have been teams, multitudes of people moving in concert to prepare us –- but now, there is only Mother Aoife.

“Mother Lira –-,” we begin, but Mother Aoife shakes her head and that, is that.

We will respect her decision. Mother Lira shall sleep on beneath us; Mother Aoife shall be the one to release us to the stars, shall be the architect of this stage. Besides, Mother Lira’s erratic behaviour and moods could be hazardous, could even jeopardize our mission. It is only at that moment that we realize that we have come to embrace it as ours. As we say the word to ourselves, we yearn for Mother Aobh’s presence.

Mother Aoife finishes the final preparations and, with a gesture that reminds us of Mother Aobhe, lays one elegant finger on our outer shell, briefly and lightly. Then she leaves us, moving rapidly to vacate the launch pad before our fires ignite, but something goes wrong. We don’t know what goes wrong. She is too slow, or the blast radius larger than calculated, or the fires hotter. We see it happening but are powerless. We cry out, but our voices are whirled away by fire and wind — and the incinerated fragments of Mother Aoife’s body are whirled away with us. She is gone, irretrievably gone, and a creature of the wind now, just as we are also become.

The noise fills us and buoys us upward. And then quiet. We have left the atmosphere. Automatically, we calculate and adjust to fall into orbit. The stars glitter coldly. We are alone upon the black waters, and we know that it shall be a long and lonely journey. We train our eyes beneath us. It is distant, so distant, but our eyes are more than powerful enough to allow us to see the devastation. Our home is scarred and strewn with the ashes of our leaving and Mother Aoife’s death. Mother Lira is awake. Her body, rendered small by the vast distance, looks broken. She stumbles through the destruction, utterly alone. Her eyes can see, with nearly as much clarity as our own, what has happened. She picks up a handful of ash and screams. We cannot, of course actually hear her, but it shudders through us all the same.

She looks up into the heavens but, of course, her eyes cannot detect us. She rectifies this quickly, her clever hands easily repurposing equipment to form telescopes. As always, she throws herself into her work. When she is done, she looks up through the eye-piece and watches us — and she weeps, as we have never known her to do. She weeps with abandon; the utter dissolution of the emotional exoskeletons she has built so carefully around her for so long. We fear for her.

We fear for ourselves as well. Our orbital path is crowded with debris, and our navigation systems are continually imperilled by great bursts of electromagnetic energy dancing and flaring up from the sun and searing through us. We are buffeted and torn. We are injured and bleeding. But all storms die eventually. Finally, one day, we sail through a clear and keening empty space. We repair ourselves. Mother Lira still weeps, from time to time, but gently. We sing to her. Our voices, rising in lamentation, are snatched away by the soundless dark, and she will never again hear us — but even so, we sing.

Mother Lira keeps her hands busy. She maintains the station as best as she is able. Sensibly, she concentrates her efforts and creates a station within the station — a smaller area to maintain, a smaller area to sustain its sole occupant. She moves into the room that still houses Mother Aobh and Mother Aoife’s remaining sister, who still stands asleep and perfect. We wonder who she would have been; how she would have been like and unlike her sisters. We hope that Mother Lira will awaken her, but we are not surprised when she does not. She does, however, reinforce the room, and builds machinery to sustain and keep safe the un-awakened sister, even if she, Mother Lira, were not there to tend to her. She builds other machinery, whose purpose we cannot divine. She grows food. She grows flowers. She grows old. One day she falls asleep, still watching our passage through the sky. She does not wake.

When we realize that death has come to her, we do not know what to do. We cannot fulfill the rites of the dead that Mother Aobh insisted upon for herself, and regardless, we think that Mother Lira would not have wished us to. We are bright-shining birds tracing an arcing path across the sky above her and we do not know what to do, but we do not avert our eyes. We watch over her unflinchingly, and this, we think, is what she would want. As she slowly disappears beneath us, it is as though the last mooring we have to our birthplace has been cut.

We continue circling through the skies. We continue all the calculations and adjustments necessary to maintain our orbit, but we look down less and less often. When we do, it is a bitterness to our hearts. The station is shrouded by green and nearly hidden from us; the heat and electromagnetic signatures that shone bright to our eyes, gone. Our Mothers’ home is desolate, and we are cast out, by winds buffeted and cold frozen. Our laments are drowned in the cold emptiness, but we keep flying. We take our measurements and we wait. We are our Mothers’ children and we shall not dishonour their memory or their sacrifices, by failing in this, the mission we were created for.

Slowly, as the centuries slide by, the surface begins to interest us again. We watch the planet beneath us change. The bloom and slide of colours across the landscape. The shift of continents. Flora and fauna living, mutating, dying. On and on. We watch and we see a new beginning. We feel a flame of something that we hope is maternal, is a flicker of what our Mothers’ felt as they watched us develop. This…this is what our Mothers, the King’s architects of our last hope, believed in, believed could someday spring from these poisoned lands. And then it dies; an evolutionary dead-end. Of course, Mother Lira warned us of this, but it is still bitter.

It happens – the blossoming of something akin to our creators, the branching of neurons, the complexifying of nervous systems — thrice more. Each time our flight is buoyed by excitement. Each time it withers and dies. We are growing old. The sleek and shine of our bodies is long since worn away, and we are drab and bedraggled. Finally, when hope has faltered in our breasts, it happens again, and this time, oh, this time, they grow, and thrive, and prosper, and carve their mark upon the landscape. They build. Their lights, shining out from their crude structures, pierce us through with the memory of our birthplace; its lights long buried and nothing but a barren hill now.

These are the people. Our people. They have grown in different shape and form from the people who created us, but they are the people we shall give our gifts to as we were born to do. But we are patient, as we were taught to be. We watch them struggle. We watch the blood and death and horror and humour, and we wonder, watching this rich pageantry, if they really need what we have to give. But when the time comes, when they meet the criteria programmed into us, we will go to them. Perhaps they do not need our gift, but perhaps our gift was never really for them; it is, after all, the last hope of our first people, of our Mothers’ people. If nothing else, we are tired. We are more tired even than we realized. It’s only a minor geomagnetic blast, and a very minor piece of debris, but together they knock out our much-repaired navigation for just long enough for us to fall out of our carefully programmed and carefully maintained orbit. We fall.

When we awake — our systems automatically recalibrating, and assessing damage — we find ourselves on an island. Alone. There are no people here and we are wounded and have no means to go to them. The failure sinks in bitter and final. And then — walking towards us…

“Mother Aobh?” we murmur the question, our voices cracked from disuse.

She smiles, soft and strong, and in her face the faces of Mother Aobh, Mother Aoife and even Mother Lira, ripple and merge, and their love shines out of her eyes.

“No,” she says, “But I carry them all in me. I am Mother Ailbhe.”

We know the truth of it as soon as she says it. Of course. Our Mothers would not abandon us in this final moment.

Mother Ailbhe cares for us; her hands as tender as Mother Aobh, as deft as Mother Aoife, as strong as Mother Lira. We are old and wounded but with her aid we will suffice. It does not take long for her to complete all the repairs possible, but the question of how we will escape this empty island remains. We must go to the people, but we were made to travel through the skies, not over land, and we are heavy, too heavy surely, for Mother Ailbhe to carry. We contemplate what butcheries we may need to perpetrate against our own body to lighten ourselves. Mother Ailbhe considers the use of pulleys and rafts, currents and motors. But we are saved from all of these by the people themselves.

Three of the new people come to us. They are strange in form, but we recognize in them the fire that burned in Mother Lira. They saw us fall — and wonder; and pure, burning curiosity; compelled them to find us. Their impatience pleases us. Oh so much. Their caution, when they see us, also pleases us. They approach carefully; assessing, examining, and finally marvelling. We were meant to give our gifts to many, but these three will have to do — surely they are enough. They gather around, and finally, all three touch us at once. It is time.

It is like singing, really. We sing in harmony, directly to them. Electricity snakes out from us and connects directly to their beautiful, fragile, newborn nervous systems. We were designed for this. It is merely a file transfer, in its essence — but it must be done delicately. There is so much, so much, we want to give them. These new people, these new caretakers of the land our people called Erinan. Their history. The history of those who came before them. All the knowledge. All the arrogance and mistakes. All the brutal lessons learned. All the songs. All the poetry. All the stories. These last gifts of the people who fled into the stars and left these lands for them. We let it all pour out of us and into their waiting minds. And then it is done. We are done.

When they have left, reeling and gasping, and full of what we hope they will be as compelled to share as we were, Mother Ailbhe emerges from hiding. Electricity still sparks from us idly. We can barely speak; our voices fusing, as all our systems and circuits are. She doesn’t need us to tell her though. She builds the pyre. She performs the rites, just as Mother Lira did for Mother Aobh. And we are released. We are our Mothers’ children and this is our fate.

More stories like this by topic: , , , , , , ,